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Passion of the Christ

movie reviewmovie reviewmovie review out of 4 Movie Review: Passion of the Christ

Starring: James Caviezel, Maia Morgenstern
Director: Mel Gibson
Rated: R
RunTime: 126 Minutes
Release Date: February 2004
Genres: Drama, Religion

*Also starring: Monica Bellucci, Hristo Jivkov, Hristo Shopov, Rosalinda Celentano, Francesco Cabras, Claudia Gerini, Ted Rusoff, Francesco Gabriele, Matt Patresi, Sergio Rubini

Review by Jerry Saravia
3 stars out of 4

In order to understand how Jesus suffered, we should understand how he lived. It is assumed that most people know who Jesus Christ was, what he stood for, his spiritual matters, and the arguable fact (for atheists and agnostics anyway) that he was the Son of God. I remember my first girlfriend, a Catholic, stating that Jesus did not die for our sins. Others will say he did. I will not state how I feel about Jesus but I will often ask myself, "Was he human?" Of course, he was. Looking at Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ," any human that endures the physical pain and abuse to the body that Jesus takes must be human. So, did he doubt he was the Son of God, especially at the moment he was nailed to the cross? And how about the famous line, "God, why have you forsaken me?" Last I heard, forsaken meant to abandon. God abandoned his only son at the moment when he needed him the most? Just a thought.

Okay, so I am not delivering a sermon here but a crucial point must be made. People close to me have told me to see "The Passion of the Christ" because Christ's crucifixion and the Stations of the Cross are so powerfully rendered. Not one soul told me that Jesus's teachings are explored in the film, and that specifically Jesus's own thoughts would be a good enough reason to see it. You have to remember that the last major film about Jesus Christ was Martin Scorsese's very spiritual and very moving "The Last Temptation of Christ," a film that caused storms of protest and picket lines all around the country in 1988. The reasons were the controversial sequence of Jesus's temptation on the cross and that he had grave doubts he was the Son of God. Since then, films about very spiritual matters rarely rocked at the box-office (unless you consider "Forrest Gump" and "The Matrix" to be spiritual). There was also 2003's little-seen Canadian film about Jesus's life called "The Gospel of John," a film I had some interest in seeing, but it disappeared quickly. But a film directed by Mel Gibson where Christ's suffering is depicted in graphic detail apparently means big box-office. After all, would you rather see a film about Jesus teaching us the meaning of love and compassion for 126 minutes, or would you rather be subjected to 100 minutes of Christ being flogged, pushed and prodded while carrying a heavy cross? By any indication, especially the box-office numbers, the latter is more likely.

Now, the Catholic Church and other religious groups, and former altar boys I gather, are endorsing this film because it deals with the Stations of the Cross, almost all 12 of them, in explicit detail. There are some changes, as one would assume from any adaptation of a book like the Bible. There is an androgynous Satanic figure (Rosalinda Celentano), dressed in a black cloak, who follows Jesus to his crucifixion (Jesus is played, by the way, by James Caviezel who certainly has a beatific face). Ocassionally, this demon makes eye contact with Mary, Jesus's mother (Maia Morgenstern), and also connects with Jesus in the opening sequence at the Garden of Gethsemane. There is the remarkably emotional moment when Mary washes the blood off the ground after her son is scourged beyond belief (again, not mentioned in the Bible, though it could have happened. But would Pilate's wife have given her the towels?). There is also a terse moment when Mary is ready to pick up stones from the ground and pelt the guards, but then she drops them - if any moment is truly spiritual in Gibson's epic, this is definitely it.

And now for the detractors and their comments. One is the film is Anti-Semitic view because it shows the Jews killing the most famous Jew of them all - a charge that is ridiculous in hindsight when you consider that the Roman guards, Judas, Pontius Pilate and others are not exactly seen as guiltless. Never mind that the Apostles, including Judas, were Jews but the argument is directed more at the angry mob of screaming Jews (remember "Jesus Christ Superstar"? In that film, they rant "Crucify him!" over and over). I am surprised that nobody said Satan was the culprit - she must not have been happy seeing her snake getting stomped on by Jesus in the opening sequence! Was Caiaphas, the Jewish high priest, (Mattia Sbragia), such a greedy, vile man who yelled to Pontius, "Crucify him!" He basically joined the angry mob where, again, more than a few Jews are shown rallying against the blood-soaked preacher. And was the cruel ruler Pontius Pilate (Hristo Shopov) the kind of warm, lovey-dovey type who would offer Jesus a drink before pronouncing capital punishment? Pilate could have said no to Caiaphas, and just give the Savior a good old-fashioned whipping as punishment. However, it develops into an ultimatum - either he lets him go and is reviled by the people, or he gives them what they want. Must we all forget that Jesus was seen as a threat to the order, to the peace of the land? Anyone that proclaims to be the Son of God could be seen as dangerous. But no film is powerful enough to cause a rise of Anti-Semitism. The debate continues.

As directed by Mel Gibson, "The Passion of the Christ" unfolds with several acts of brutality and a truly vicious crucifixion sequence that is not for the squeamish. This is no surprise coming from the director of "Braveheart," a blood-soaked epic if there ever was one. Nothing in Scorsese's "Temptation" film approaches the level of intensity seen here, as we witness a man relentlessly brutalized, beaten, strapped, flagellated, pushed out of bridges, and thrown from carrying the Cross like a wounded, helpless animal. Unlike what some people have said about the violence, Gibson doesn't show the actual piercings and whippings against Jesus's body (excepting a few split-second shots) - we mostly see the agonizing face of Jesus or the emotionally devastated faces of Mother Mary and Mary Magdalene (Monica Bellucci) while hearing the sounds of death. This is the correct way of choreographing such violence, making the audience think they have seen more violence than they actually had.

At times, the film is absurdly melodramatic and overcooked, particularly with scenarios of God's and Satan's intervention that are more suited to a gory Gothic horror flick than a story about Jesus. But "The Passion of the Christ" also has moments of true power, and Gibson knows how to accentuate the humanity of others when confronted with Jesus's last few hours leading up to his death (let's not forget the sequence of Simon of Syrene helping Jesus carry the cross). Still, there are no spiritual lessons to be learned, no Jesus speaking of love and compassion (one brief flashback will not do), and no real basis for why Catholics and others love Jesus in the first place. The suffering and physical pain are not the whole story, nor the fact that he was a carpenter and knew how to make a wooden dining room table. There are so few films that ever focus on spiritual matters about love and compassion that it is rightly assumed that audiences are more inclined to see a violent Biblical epic than an intellectual one. Gibson shows us how the Son of God died (he died for all of us, after all) - I wish he had been just as interested in showing how he lived.

Copyright 2004 Jerry Saravia

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